R.I.P Leon Mestel (1927-2017)

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on September 18, 2017 by telescoper

Leon Mestel FRS, photographed by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

I heard this weekend the very sad news that on Friday 15th September 2017, we lost one of our great astrophysicists. Professor Leon Mestel FRS, pictured abvove, passsed away, peacefully in his sleep, at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He was 90 years old.

Leon Mestel was a scientist of the highest distinction. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1977, his research interests were very broad, encompassing, but not restricted to, the areas of star formation and structure, especially stellar magnetism and astrophysical magnetohydrodynamics. Among his contributions in other areas were important papers on gravitational collapse and equilibrium in the context of galaxy dynamics, of which the classic `Mestel Disk’ is just one example. He has been awarded both the Eddington Medal (1993) and the Gold Medal (2002) of the Royal Astronomical Society. He had great physical insight which was backed up with prodigious mathematical skill and an encyclopedic knowledge of astrophysics. He also had great powers of concentration and the determination to tackle the kind of extremely challenging problems that scared off lesser intellects. Leon  was an ‘old school’ theoretical astrophysicist who was held in very high regard across the astrophysics community, and he will be greatly missed.

Others more expert than me will be able to pay proper tribute to his scientific work, so I’ll restrict myself here to a few personal reminiscences.

Leon Mestel was Professor in the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex when I joined it to start my DPhil in 1985. We new postgraduate research research students were required to take four courses on various aspects of astronomy, and pass oral examinations on them, before being allowed to progress beyond the first year. One of these courses was a course on Stellar Structure, taught by Leon Mestel. His lectures were pretty intense – and, I have to say, not made any easier to understand by his truly terrible handwriting on the blackboard! – but I learned a huge amount from them. I still have the lecture notes I took, in fact.

I had a root around in my old files this morning and found this evidence that I once knew something about stars!

All of us found Leon very scary to start with. He was intellectually quite intimidating and seemed to be a rather fierce and irascible character. That opinion changed when, a few weeks into term, he invited us to his house in Lewes for a social evening. We were all a bit nervous on the way there, unsure of what to expect, but as it turns out Leon was a marvellously entertaining and avuncular host. He had a wicked sense of humour and a seemingly inexhaustible stream of jokes, across a spectrum from groan-worthy puns to very risqué stories, including a  liberal measure of archetypal Jewish humour.  Leon’s father was a Rabbi, actually.  That evening broke the ice and we all realised that the was one of the good guys. That he came across as grumpy sometimes was because he was concentrating very hard, but it was rather easy to make him laugh and bring that twinkle to his eye that we will all remember.

His sharp brain and very broad knowledge meant that Leon could spot bullshit at a  considerable distance and, while he often seemed to be snoozing through  our weekly seminar,  he invariably woke up at the end and asked a penetrating question. Since one of his main interests was the role of magnetic fields in astrophysics, a subject that sends many astrophysicists screaming from the room, he would often choose something about magnetism as a question. When I was there his main focus was on the fiendishly difficult problem of building a self-consistent model of the pulsar magnetosphere. He was, however, genuinely interested in all branches of astrophysics and always recognised good work when he saw it, especially from younger scientists.

During my time as a PhD student I had some problems that required me to take quite a lot of time off. Leon was extremely kind and supportive during this period, and he even bent the rules a bit to avoid putting me through the formal process of interrupting my studies. When I was back at work and just about finishing my thesis in 1988 it was Leon who came to see me in person, with a big smile on his face, and offered me a postdoctoral position at Sussex to follow my graduate studies. I nearly fell off my chair with surprise and gratitude.

After I joined the staff later in 1988, it became a bit of a ritual for us to visit the Senior Common Room (which was situated in what is now Bramber House) for lunch, followed by coffee. It turned out that Leon liked to do the Times crossword with his post-lunch coffee. He wasn’t at all averse to a collaborative effort on tricky research problems, and it was thus with crosswords too. We both preferred the Guardian puzzle, actually, but he saved that one for after work and did the Times one because the paper was provided free in the SCR. There was also a Chambers dictionary.

I left Sussex in 1990 and Leon retired in 1992. I didn’t see as much of him after that, except for the occasion when he and my former DPhil supervisor John Barrow organized a meeting in 2004 about Eddington at which I was honoured to be asked to give a talk about the 1919 eclipse expeditions. That was a very nice occasion at which Leon was in sparkling form. Thereafter I saw him occasionally at the RAS Club, but in recent years he didn’t come so often as he found it increasingly difficult to get around.

Leon Mestel was not only a great astrophysicist but also a great character.  I’m so very sorry I can’t attend his funeral (which is being held tomorrow), but I send heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

Rest in Peace Leon Mestel FRS (1917-2017)



Football Round Up

Posted in Football with tags , , , on September 17, 2017 by telescoper

Since autumn is coming, and the football season is well under way,  bringing with it that terrifying existential void that opens up on Saturdays between the end of Final Score and the start of Match Of The Day,  I thought I would just mention that, after a good win on Saturday against Stoke City,  Newcastle United are now in  4th place in the Premiership:

I’ve posted that simply to enjoy it while it lasts. I don’t think they’ll be so high at the end of the season, but they’ve recovered well, winning three consecutive games after losing their first two.

In a strange quirk of something or other, Newcastle United now find themselves immediately above the two teams to which they have lost.

Incidentally, when I was a student at Cambridge, in 1984, Chelsea finished in first place in the old Second Division, securing promotion to the First Division. Newcastle finished third that season and also got promoted. Manchester City finished fourth. How times change.

It’s a funny old game.

A Sign of Supercomputing Wales

Posted in Uncategorized on September 16, 2017 by telescoper

A new sign has arrived at the Data Innovation Research Institute courtesy of our colleagues from Supercomputing Wales, a new initiative that started this spring. 

Two people associated with this project are now working from the DII office where I am currently based. It also employs six research software engineers around Cardiff University as well as others elsewhere in Wales.

Nine Years In The Dark!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on September 15, 2017 by telescoper

When I logged onto WordPress today  I received a message that it was the 9th anniversary of my registration with them as a blogger, which is when I took my first step into the blogosphere; that was way back on 15th September 2008. I actually wrote my first post that day too. Unfortunately I didn’t really know what I was doing on my first day at blogging – no change there, then –  and I didn’t actually manage to figure out how to publish this earth-shattering piece. It was only after I’d written my second post that I realized that the first one wasn’t actually visible to the general public because I hadn’t pressed the right buttons, so the two appear in the wrong order in my archive.

I’d like to take this opportunity to send my best wishes, and to thank, everyone who reads this blog, however occasionally. According to the WordPress stats, I’ve got readers from all round the world, including one in the Vatican! If you’re interested in statistics then, as of 14.30 BST today, I have published 3,806 blog posts, and have received 3,220,896 hits altogether; I get an average of about 1200 per day, but this varies in a very erratic fashion. The greatest number of hits I have received in a day is 8,864 (at the peak of the BICEP2 controversy). There have been 27,590 comments published on here and  1,705,410 rejected. Most of the rejected comments were from automated spam bots, but a small number have been removed for various violations, usually for abuse of some kind. Yes, I do get to decide what is published. It’s my blog!

While I am on the subject of comments, I’ll just repeat here my comments policy as stated on the home page of this blog:

Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be abusive will not be accepted. I do not necessarily endorse, support, sanction, encourage, verify or agree with the opinions or statements of any information or other content in the comments on this site and do not in any way guarantee their accuracy or reliability.

It does mean a lot to me to know that there are people who find my ramblings interesting enough to look at, and sometimes even to come back for more, so I’d like to take this opportunity to send my best wishes to all those who follow this blog and especially those who take the trouble to comment on it in such interesting and unpredictable ways!


Incidentally, I noticed that another auspicious anniversary falls today. It is now thirty years to the day since my second refereed paper was published!  Here’s the front page:


Reading through it again now it seems incredibly simplistic and dated. It may not exactly be a classic, but it still gets the odd citation!

A Cube of Resistance

Posted in Cute Problems with tags , , , on September 14, 2017 by telescoper

It has been brought to my attention that I haven’t posted any cute physics problems recently, so here’s one (which involves applying Kirchoff’s laws) that’s a bit harder than A-level standard which might be of interest to students about to begin a degree in physics this month!

The above image, produced using the advanced computer graphics facilities available at Cardiff University’s Data Innovation Research Institute, represents a cube formed of 12 wires each of which has resistance 1Ω.

What is the electrical resistance between: (i) A and G; (ii) A and H; and (iii) A and D?

As usual, answers through the comments box please!

The Wipers Times

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on September 13, 2017 by telescoper

Although I regularly go to the opera and concerts of various kinds in Cardiff I don’t often go to the theatre here, but I made an exception last night to go and see The Wipers Times at the New Theatre. I’m glad I did, as it was a marvellously entertaining evening. As an added bonus there was a short question-and-answer session with authors Nick Newman and Ian Hislop (both of Private Eye) on the stage after the performance:

Apologies for the crummy picture, but we were rather a long way away in the Upper Circle:  that’s Ian Hislop in the middle and Nick Newman on the left.

The play is based around the true story of a group of soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Roberts and Lieutenant Colonel Jack Pearson of the Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment (`The Sherwood Foresters’) who, while scavenging for material to reinforce trenches near Ypres in 1916, stumble across an old printing press. They decided to put this incongruous item to use by publishing a satirical newspaper called The Wipers Times, `Wipers’ being British Army slang for `Ypres’. The newspaper was a great success, running to 23 issues, and was not only hugely popular with troops but was also circulated widely at home, sometimes to the consternation of the authorities.

Here’s a sample clipping from one of the original issues:

And lest you think Roberts and Pearson were cynical malingerers, both served with distinction in battle. Roberts, for example, was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry under fire during the Battle of the Somme. He also almost died in a gas attack, but insisted on rejoining his men after only a short period as an invalid. The humour of The Wipers Times was not at all meant to be seditious: it was just a way of using  humour to restore a bit of humanity to the inhumanity of the situation the soldiers found themselves in.

It’s not hard to see why this story appealed to Messrs Hislop and Newman: the humour of `The Wipers Times’ is fruit of the same tree of irreverent satirical humour  that produces Private Eye, even down to the spoof Christmas adverts! All the jokes in the play are taken directly from the original Wipers Times and they have endured exceedingly well, including some pointed references to the poor standard of journalism in the Daily Mail. Interestingly, apart from a few gags about sausages, the butt of the jokes is mostly not the Germany enemy, but the Top Brass of the British Army.  The assortment of puns,  musical-hall jokes and comic songs in among the pieces of biting satire is extremely funny in its own right, but gains extra power by its proximity to the awful reality of the trenches. In some ways it inhabits the same territory as Blackadder goes Fourth but the fact that it is based on real characters in a real situation gives it a different dimension. The authors have tried to keep everything as historically accurate as possible, and the authenticity adds to the comedy.  I am no military historian, but it happens that I do know, for example, that the Sherwood Foresters were involved in the Battle of the Somme in 1916; I wrote about it here. The script is very polished and an excellent ensemble cast keeps the show cracking along in brilliant style.

It’s worth mentioning the postscript to the story. Both Roberts and Pearson survived the War, but neither could find work when they came back to England and both emigrated, one to Argentina and the other to Canada. Both men died in the 1960s, unremembered in this country. It was only after the TV version of The Wipers Times was broadcast in 2013, and researchers were put to work finding out more about them, that their obituaries were published in the Times.

The Wipers Times is on in Cardiff until Saturday and I thoroughly recommend you catch it while you can, either here or elsewhere as it is currently on tour.

Storm Damage

Posted in Bute Park, Cardiff with tags on September 13, 2017 by telescoper

It was rather windy last night, thanks to Storm Aileen. This morning my garden contained quite a few  broken branches and other wind-blown items of  detritus that weren’t there yesterday. 

But all that was nothing compared to what I saw on the way to work past the back of the SSE SWALEC stadium at Sophia  Gardens.

It’s quite a busy path but I think the tree probably came down in the early hours of the morning so I don’t think any lives were at risk.

Storms are not unusual at this time of year, but this one seems to be a bit earlier than normal.

Update: the same scene this evening

Good work by the Council!